Thursday, May 11, 2006

Lunch in a Kenyan Home, or How Many Peace Corps Volunteers Does It Take To Catch a Kuku (Hen)?

A. One, plus three of the neighbor’s kids.

My friend Chumo is back from Nairobi, on break from studying at the Franciscan brotherhood. He invited me to visit his home today, which I learned is different from a “house.” In Kenya if you say “home” it means the place you were raised – basically your parents’ house. If you say “house” it means the place you live now if you are married. The rule applies in both English and Swahili.

I learned this the hard way. Today I asked some school kids, “Nyumba yako ni wapi?” Where is your house?

They looked confused and uncomfortable. Chumo explained that I had just asked these first graders where the house is that they live in with their spouses, and now they were all freaked out.

I should have said, “Nyumbani kwenu ni wapi?” Where is your home?

Before I left to go to Chumo’s house this morning (I’m using the American “house” terminology here) I went to my shamba to pick some vegetables as a gift. I discovered mutant zucchini and packed one in my backpack, along with two mutant squash. In the U.S. I’d never seen zucchini longer than 7-8 inches. Some of my zucchini have reached 18 inches, and are still growing. Even the yellow squash are huge, about the size of a large butternut squash.

I met Pastor Nelson on the way and he offered to bike with me up to Chumo’s house. In true Kenyan fashion, we had to make a detour to visit his neighbor’s mother, who I’d never met. She welcomed us warmly, and served us tea and bread. She and her daughter retreated to the back of the house while Nelson and I ate. I asked later if it was some kind of custom, because I felt weird sitting in a stranger’s house eating their food and drinking their tea while they weren’t having any. Nelson explained that it was a matter of practicality – the mother and daughter had already taken tea. They came back out and I impressed them with my camera – they couldn’t believe you could see the picture right after taking it. The mother went to the back of the house again, and came back with a live hen, fresh chili peppers (I have a reputation in the village for appreciating fresh chili peppers, which most Kenyans avoid) and four large avocados, useful for knocking dead unfortunate roosters hanging out under ripe avocado trees. In return I gave her two yellow squash – not exactly a fair trade, but it was all I had to offer.

We continued on to Chumo’s house for lunch, where we met Julia and Emily. I met Chumo’s mom and sisters, who brought out bean stew, potato stew and rice. We chatted until the rain started pouring so hard on the iron sheet roofing that we couldn’t hear each other, then just watched Julia crochet a chair cover. Everyone was impressed with the size of my zucchini, and in return Chumo’s mom presented me with five kilos of potatoes from their shamba. When we were leaving she packed my new hen in a plastic grocery bag with a little hole poked in the side so the hen could stick her head out and look around.

Julia and Emily were still laughing at me for saying, “Oh, don’t worry about the plastic bag, I’ll just put her inside my backpack.”

“Oh, Justina, you have amused me so much,” Julia said. “The hen will suffocate in your bag.”

Ah. Didn’t think of that.

I guess the plastic bag served several purposes, because the kuku was covered in her own poo by the time I reached home with her three hours later. Edward, one of the headmaster’s kids, came over and helped me untie her wings and legs.

She got busy eating grass, but the sun was going down and the other chickens were already in the coop. I tried to herd her towards the coop with a stick, but she was more interested in eating grass. She barely noticed that I was poking her in the butt trying to get her to walk, and I thought, well maybe this is why she’s the slowpoke that got caught and presented to me. And I also kept thinking, “Bird flu can be passed to humans through blood and feces,” so I didn’t want to touch her poo-covered body.

Brilliantly, I decided to speak to her in Kiswahili. She’s a Kenyan chicken after all.

“We,” I said. “Enda nyumbani.” Hey, you. Go inside the house.

Sharon, the housegirl’s daughter, watched me in silence, too stunned at my stupidity to even laugh. She called to the other kids in the house, and Kip and Victor (aged 4 and 6) came out to help. The hen clucked indignantly as we chased her around the compound, and the rooster started clucking disapprovingly from inside the coop.

“Bok bok bok bok beh GAWK,” she’d say.

“Bok BOK bok bok bok bok,” he’d reply.

Chickens ain’t so dumb; she followed the sound of his clucking until she found the coop, and went inside willingly. Once again, nature proves that so-called dumb animals are much smarter than people.


Blogger renee said...

Oh man justina, that makes me think about what some Kenyans living in Denver said about American Kuku...He said he was so shocked when he saw an american chicken because everytime he talked to it in Swahili it gave him a blank stare, so now he knows for sure that Kenyan chickens are very different because they do speak swahili. He said that's what makes kenyan chickens taste different...I didn't want to tell him it was because American chicken is pumped with phosphates and steriods.

10:38 PM  

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